Leading article: A tour de force from a leader with awkward months ahead

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Tony Blair's final conference speech as Labour's leader was a memorable tour de force delivered in the most extraordinary circumstances. Earlier this month, sections of his party had forced Mr Blair to declare publicly that this would be his last conference. As a result, this could have been a tense and brittle speech from a leader who was going earlier than he had planned, but was not going quite yet. Instead, Mr Blair managed to make an address that was both valedictory and yet conveyed a sense that his job was not yet done.

In tone, Mr Blair showed again that he is the best speaker of his generation. He addressed his famously tempestuous relationship with Gordon Brown by deploying humour and praise for the co-architect of New Labour. And while some of Mr Brown's critics will no doubt use Mr Blair's performance to draw unfavourable comparisons between the two, this would be invidious - given the Prime Minister's relative freedom, and the constraints under which Mr Brown had to speak.

Mr Blair adopted a jocular tone, too, in speaking about his own complicated relationship with his party and the voters. But in a significant passage he expressed his determination to help Labour secure a fourth term, describing it as the only legacy he cared about. After this speech it will be harder for the Conservatives to de-couple Mr Blair from the Labour Party.

There were messages, as well, for his own party, about the dangers of lapsing into a comfort zone and failing to meet new challenges. It is one of Mr Blair's strengths to look ahead without sentimentality. But he listed also an impressive array of achievements since Labour came to power. From low unemployment, a minimum wage, increased investment in public services and some historic constitutional changes Mr Blair argued convincingly that Britain is in a better place than it was in 1997. He was right, also, to warn that reform of public services must not end when he leaves Downing Street.

The foreign policy section of the speech was less convincing. Once more he advanced his case by simplistically linking the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, two very different conflicts. Indeed the justified removal of the Taliban was disastrously undermined by the conflict in Iraq. In addition he put the case for Britain being the strongest ally of the United States without subtlety or nuance. A single speech cannot wipe out the calamitous mistakes Mr Blair has made since he resolved long ago to form a close friendship with President Bush.

Nor can a single address wipe out the awkward context in which it was delivered. Labour faces a highly charged few months in which the probable next leader, Mr Brown, will be under sustained scrutiny. Meanwhile the government functions in an unusually contorted way. The Prime Minister will present the next legislative programme, although he will not be in power when the parliamentary session ends. Mr Blair also said he would focus in coming months on one of his most persistently admirable objectives, re-establishing the Middle East peace process. He is a skilled and experienced negotiator, but such a demanding task seems peculiarly ambitious as the clock on his leadership ticks away.

In spite of these reservations, the speech was a reminder of why Mr Blair has been such a formidable leader. He is able to deliver meticulously prepared speeches in a way that is conversational, good humoured and yet rich in policy content. There is nearly always a compelling narrative momentum. In this case, the narrative was more personal, but also suggested that, despite all the tensions at the top of the Government, he and those around him are still hungry for Labour to win again. Mr Blair's last speech to Labour's conference was his best.

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